Lauren Fishman and Matt Van Horn stood at the altar together. A trellis of sunflowers and violets framed the couple, as the rabbi led them through their declaration of love and commitment to each other. Their friends and family sat watching as the two stared deeply into each other’s eyes.

Then the groom pulled out his iPhone.

“I wrote my vows on Evernote,” he says, referring to the note-taking application for mobile phones. “I pulled out my phone to read my vows.”

Technically, it was a breach of the couple’s pre-nuptial agreement: no mobile phones at the wedding, no checking in on Foursquare, no posting to Facebook, Twitter or Path, the social networking site where Matt works. It was a long negotiation that spanned several conversations leading up to the event. Finally, Matt acquiesced.

“I didn’t want him holding his phone the whole time at the wedding,” Lauren says. “I didn’t want us to miss a second of our day.”

Technology is pervading every moment of our lives – even the most sacred of our most intimate relationships. With mobile phones never more than an arm’s reach away, our attention is constantly open to disruption, from emails, texts and, most recently, social network updates. In the US, 80 per cent of adults use the internet, and 66 per cent of those internet users use social networks, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center. Among teenagers, 95 per cent are online and 80 per cent of those online use social media sites.

As much as platforms like Facebook have become an online scrapbook for people’s lives, they have become public portals, almost performance spaces, for people’s relationships. They are not only places for sharing momentous events in a couple’s history – engagements, weddings, first dog – they are also a play-by-play chronicle of the couple’s every date, love note and even fight. As Matt says, “A guy will get in a fight with his girlfriend, then post photos with his arms around other people.”

As these habits become a routine part of life, some relationship counsellors and mental health experts are concerned that online socialising is compromising the quality of real-life relationships. On one level, social networks serve as an alluring distraction. The terms “Facebook addiction” and “social networking addiction” have begun appearing in psychological research journals. These sites are so engaging, so addictive, that people are choosing to spend time in front of their screens instead of face to face with their loved ones.

“People are coming home and getting on their computers instead of having sex with their partners,” says Cameron Yarbrough, a couples therapist in San Francisco and a friend of the reporter. “I see couples break up over this stuff. This is real.”

On another level, communicating over electronic channels strips the emotional context from conversations. Some people, young and old, are choosing to communicate with each other through texting and social networks specifically to avoid the ambiguity and awkwardness of telephone and in-person conversations. But it is through those ambiguous, awkward moments that people truly get to know one another. It is by interpreting facial expressions, tones of voice, and half-finished sentences that we figure each other out, and become sympathetic to others’ points of view.

Some experts worry that the more people habituate themselves to these rational, binary communication channels – thumbs up, thumbs down, smiley face, frowny face – the less they pay attention to, and tolerate, the nuances of emotions. Our brains are increasingly colonising our hearts.

“Those parts of who we are as human beings are becoming less available as we become more attached to our technology,” says Michael Klein, a clinical psychologist and couples’ therapist in San Francisco. “It has a very negative impact on relationships.”

In the past few years, Klein and other therapists have also noticed an increase in extramarital affairs facilitated by Facebook.

“People reconnect with old flames from college or school, and there’s this easy way to flirt or chat,” he says. “And when people are dissatisfied in their marriages, which is a fairly chronic condition in our society, it’s easy for those flirtations to catch fire.”

There is little quantitative research on these points. Various studies have been conducted about people’s use of technology and social media platforms, but few have examined the kinds of sensitive issues that arise in therapy offices on a larger scale. Many questions remain to be asked, let alone answered, about the effects online social networks have on our closest relationships.

We are in a transition. Humans have always created technology before figuring out how to manage it socially. Both benefits and pitfalls emerge, and humans adapt. Many people praise mobile phones and social networks for keeping them connected to loved ones, especially those they must be apart from – for work, school, or even military service. Humans are still identifying and balancing the pros and cons. Online social rules and etiquette have yet to be codified. But the trend is forging ahead, and people, young and old, are increasingly living their relationships online.

Matt and Lauren Van Horn are both 28. Since they started dating five years ago, social networks have been an integral part of how they have expressed their feelings for each other. “Everything we did, we were very public about it,” Lauren says. They posted frequently to various social networks, from photos of themselves in bathing suits on holiday in Jamaica to comments such as “You are the bagel to my cream cheese.”

Even Matt’s marriage proposal involved an intricate web of social network technology. He told Lauren he would be out of town, then arranged for a friend to take her to a hilltop in San Francisco that was special to them, under the pretence of looking at a dog they might adopt. Matt was already there, hiding behind a rock. On his mobile phone, he used Foursquare to “check in” at the top of the hill, an act that would send an update to his Twitter and Facebook feeds, which in turn fed straight to Lauren’s phone. He included a note: “Proposing to the woman of my dreams,” it said, “turn around.”

Matt emerged and got down on one knee. Lauren was stunned. Matt’s friend, huddled by the rock, recorded the whole proposal using the video camera in his phone, and streamed it over the internet to a website Matt had set up so his and Lauren’s families could watch in real time.

“People started retweeting the link, so there were thousands of people watching it live,” Matt says. It took Lauren a few moments to realise what was happening. “I was really shocked that I was on camera and everyone was watching me,” she remembers. Later, after the surprise subsided and the “Yes!” had been proclaimed, she was “100 per cent okay” with the public proposal. “I thought it was awesome that so many people saw it,” she says. “I really wanted other people to see and feel how happy Matt makes me.”

When Facebook was in its infancy, Mark Zuckerberg and his co-founders sat around a table in a house in Palo Alto and zeroed in on their computers. Eyes glued to the computer screen, no one talking. Early accounts of Zuckerberg, by venture capitalists and journalists, describe him as an introverted, socially awkward guy. Brilliant, visionary, yes. But willing to chit-chat or engage in social niceties, no.

Silicon Valley is a land of introverts. Scores of geeks flock to the area to join or start their own technology company. They are idealistic and passionate about the computer code stored in their laptops. But social charmers, there are few. Many, though certainly not all, are painfully shy, quiet, awkward. They are reluctant to make eye contact, staring at the table while they describe how they get people to connect with each other online. They detest talking about themselves. And yet these are the young men Valley venture capitalists call “the geniuses of social”.

How these engineers define social in the online context is, of course, markedly different from how their psychotherapists would define it. In Facebook-land, social = clicks. What these engineers are good at is manipulating which buttons you click, so that you click more of them. Accept more friend requests. Like more posts. Join this game. The idea is that the more you share, the more you invite your other friends to join the site, the bigger Facebook’s audience grows and the more robust the virality of the network becomes. This enables the company to demonstrate what a dominant internet powerhouse it is – to convince other companies, such as music businesses and newspapers, to allow Facebook to distribute their content; to convince advertisers to spend money on advertisements, and to convince investors to buy its stock in the public markets.

Facebook measures its success by the 901m monthly users it has around the world, who “Like” things or write a comment 3.2bn times every day, and who attracted $3.7bn in advertising sales and gaming payments for the site last year.

That is why Facebook’s debut on the public markets this month has been one of the most hotly anticipated in history, and why venture capitalists are eagerly scouring Silicon Valley for the next social media phenomenon. They have invested billions of dollars in recent years in a range of “social” start-ups that provide us with even more opportunities to log in to our devices – to share photos, celebrity news, our shopping habits, our eating habits, our illnesses. The more users a company attracts, and the longer they spend on the site, the more excited the investors become.

Virality is not depth, however. Humans have always shared things, for many different reasons, well before social networks came along. Now, these digital sharing sites have encouraged people to share more things, with many more people, and much more quickly than before. They have created a platform for continuous feedback that keeps us coming back for more, checking to see if anyone else Liked, or retweeted, our post. It is an ego-pleasing activity.

“When we tweet and have lots of friends follow us, we get surges of dopamine and other neurochemicals that make us feel excited,” says Stan Tatkin, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, and a psychobiological couples therapist. “These reward circuits activate, and we want to do it again.”

In extreme cases this can lead to “social media addiction”, with two different types of people most at risk: egocentric types who derive pleasure from positive self-presentation and positive feedback, and people with low self-esteem who find online social networking easier to navigate than “the demands of real-life proximity and intimacy”, according to a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Whether we do it for healthy or unhealthy reasons, we are doing it. Facebook’s blue thumbs-up logo is all over the internet, reminding us to share and share again. Engineers who were terrified of asking a girl to a dance, who got bullied by the popular kids in high school, now have nearly 1bn people logging in to their creation every month, abiding by a new set of social customs they created.

It is the ultimate revenge of the geeks.

Michael Fishman and Lori Borizoski met each other on Facebook before they met in person. Michael (whose sister, Lauren, was the subject of the hilltop, online proposal) “friended” Lori after her picture appeared in his list of recommended friends. She accepted. Two days and eight emails later they went on their first date. Within a month, Michael was ready to make the relationship Facebook Official.

“I knew I wanted to say I was in a relationship with her on Facebook,” he says.

Michael Fishman and Lori Borizoski
Michael Fishman and Lori Borizoski, photographed in Los Angeles. They met on Facebook, and say it ‘is always involved in some aspect’ of their relationship © Steve Schofield

Changing status on one’s Facebook profile to “in a relationship” is, to Americans, the modern version of giving a girl a letterman jacket to wear, or asking her to “go steady”. It is a new format to an old ritual, but one with much farther-reaching implications.

Making a relationship Facebook Official, or “Facebook Real”, is like making the relationship itself real, as though it wouldn’t be if it weren’t declared so on a platform where hundreds – if not thousands – of friends could see it, and add their own comments. It’s a commitment. The love notes and photos from dates provide ongoing, continuous evidence of togetherness – and send a clear message to other potential suitors to back off. “Relationship status on Facebook has an aura about it,” Michael says. “You can see it all the time; people comment on it, they Like it. There’s a pressure to it [a pressure on the people in the relationship].”

When Michael was ready to suggest to Lori that they change their relationship status, he planned a special dinner to “pop the question”. He took Lori to a French restaurant, with vintage decor and candles. They had a lovely meal. Then dessert came.

“I was really nervous,” he says. “It’s funny, it’s just an icon, but I still got nervous.”

Michael took a deep breath and asked Lori if she would be in a relationship with him on Facebook. She said yes. He pushed aside his crème brûlée, pulled out his mobile phone and sent the request. She pulled out hers and accepted. The relationship was now official. It was real.

With Facebook, a range of things that were once private are now public. Mark Zuckerberg has frequently said he wants Facebook to push contemporary boundaries of what people share, so people will share more. He believes this will make the world a more transparent place in general – holding governments and corporations to a new, higher level of accountability.

In many respects, it has worked. Airlines and consumer companies with bad customer service have been publicly shamed on Facebook, and forced to modify their policies and business practices. Governments in the Middle East have faced social uprisings and revolutions facilitated by people organising on Facebook and other social networks.

However, it is unclear how much all the online sharing we do within our social circles actually strengthens our closest relationships. To be fair, fostering deep, meaningful relationships is not part of Facebook’s mission statement. But we seem to be trading quality for quantity. The bigger Facebook networks have grown, the more concerned people have become with the image they present of themselves on Facebook. It has strayed from the destination for “authentic” communication that Zuckerberg envisioned, into a platform for the “performance” of the self.

“On Facebook, people get to edit, delete, retouch,” says Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of Alone Together. “Facebook has raised the issue of performance of self to the main event, [for people] from nine years old onwards. We’re performing ourselves all the time online.”

And we are also performing our relationships – proving to our friends, to our ex-lovers and to ourselves that the love we have now is real, maybe better than what we had before.

“You’re a real person in real life, but you can manipulate that Facebook world,” says Michael Fishman. “It’s its own living social environment, so you live vicariously through these computer relationships.”

Michael regards Facebook as a creative outlet, a place to recreate his real-life relationship in photos and love notes and elusive quotes. Sometimes Lori will spend hours on Facebook to look at all the photos and comments, and reminisce. “It made our bond stronger,” he says.

Sometimes, they fight about Facebook. On Facebook. Lori might get upset about something he posted, or didn’t post, Michael says, or if other women flirt with him on the site. In response, he might post an indirect comment on his page about trust and loyalty, and attract scores of comments from friends. Sometimes, if they’re really mad at each other, Lori threatens to tell everyone on Facebook that they’re breaking up. “Facebook is always involved in some aspect,” he says.

Therapists have seen this kind of public airing of dirty laundry in numerous cases. While some couples talk things through and resolve their conflicts offline, some are using online communications to lash out at each other and, in effect, avoid their problems, according to Cameron Yarbrough, the couples therapist in San Francisco. They bring others into the fight by posting about it, and allow comments from other people to play out, rather than discuss it directly with each other.

“That’s called triangulating,” says Yarbrough. “It disperses stress and anxiety to a group, rather than containing it between the two people. Facebook is like triangulation on steroids.”

The fallout involves more hurt feelings and a loss of trust. Something private and intimate in a relationship has been exploited, and that confuses the couple’s ability to understand and empathise with one another.

“To protect those feelings, people have to become more removed emotionally, less vulnerable,” says Michael Klein. Which means that people actually share less with each other, or that what they share is less meaningful. The connection can be diluted further if the couple retreat into technological escapism. People avoid the difficult issues by spending more time online.

“It’s a case of, ‘I don’t want to clean the house, I can always check Facebook,’” Yarbrough says. “Or, ‘I don’t want to work out this problem I’m having with my girlfriend, I can look at Facebook. We’re not having sex enough and I don’t want to deal with that, I can always look at my Facebook.’”

It becomes a repeating cycle. The more we retreat to our computers, the more we train ourselves out of confronting difficulty, and we actually start to lose our ability to deal with it. “We lose this quality of self-reflection,” says Klein. “Because once you’re distracted, self-reflection becomes harder. And as self-reflection becomes harder, there’s a pull to become more distracted.”

The social network revolution is still new to adults. Facebook launched just over eight years ago on college campuses. So while the married couples whom therapists are seeing today might have met on Facebook, they formed their first relationships and intimate bonds before the ubiquity of status updates and Likes.

Today, young people are on Facebook from age 13, and often younger. They are on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram too. Some 77 per cent of teens have a mobile phone, and 23 per cent of them have smartphones, according to Pew. They are constantly connected with their friends from school through the internet. They can talk about homework and gossip online well into the evening, text their friends from bed before they go to sleep, and reach for their phones the moment they wake up.

Online relationship dramas are common among the younger generations – as common as offline relationship dramas tend to be in adolescence, says Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. She argues that young people are conducting their relationships primarily through texts and social networks, mainly because the opportunity to see each other alone without adult supervision is so limited. For this younger generation, digital communication is the path to intimacy rather than a distraction from it.

The performative aspects of these networks are amplified for teens, with the panoply of romances and breakups on full public display. Boyd saw one 17-year-old boy’s online sentiments go from “I love my girlfriend AMY” to “I hate my stupid bitch ex-girlfriend” in a matter of a week.

“Today’s teens are part of a significant shift in how intimate communication and relationships are structured, expressed and publicised,” writes sociologist CJ Pascoe in the book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.

It remains to be seen what kind of cases this shift will deliver to therapists in 10 or 20 years’ time. They could grow out of certain social networking habits in the same way teens grow out of a range of behaviours, and arrive in their adult relationships no worse, or better, than their parents did. Right now, all generations are navigating the lines of public and private, deciding what to share or not to share, according to their own starting points.

For Lauren and Matt Van Horn, it was near impossible to stop themselves posting on social networks at their wedding. Though they agreed not to do it, Matt sneaked his phone out twice to record two moments he couldn’t resist, with the compromise of posting it to Path later, “so I wouldn’t get in trouble”. He took one video of Lauren on the dance floor with her family, and another, pointing the camera toward himself and Lauren as they climbed into their limo after the wedding reception. By the time they got to their hotel that night, when Matt could post the videos, Lauren had forgiven the transgression completely.

“To have those mini clips meant so much to me,” Lauren says. “To see the looks on our faces, seeing that genuine happiness on my father’s face … the fact that I could watch that video immediately, and over and over and over again, is just magical.”

April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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